A Kendrick Lamar Syllabus

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys on January 28, 2018. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

Last month, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his 2017 album DAMN. It’s the first work of hip-hop to be commended since the award for musical composition was created in 1943. Most winners have been classical musicians, and a few, like Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, composers of jazz.

The Pulitzer board noted that DAMN. “offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” The album’s selection updates and redefines conceptions of music and high culture — it is canon expanding and its reverberations and aftershocks should be significant.

DAMN. is Lamar’s third album, and while it is spectacular, I don’t think it’s his most thrilling. good kid m.A.A.d. city, from 2012, succeeds more on the plane of hip-hop aesthetics, with its structurally sound story arc. To Pimp a Butterfly, from 2015, was more melodically lush, and it magnetized a rising tide of political fervor: The single “Alright” became a protest anthem, and every major release by a popular black musician afterward seemed to form a politically-charged chorus.

Lamar has made a career of delivering prescient, complex work that is sometimes fiery and discordant, and other times deeply meditative or grief-stricken. But his work always feels honest. With the significance of his Pulitzer in sight, I offer a small selection of the insightful writing on Lamar that has published in the years since his debut.

Album Notes

 “The Making of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d. city’” (Insanul Ahmed, Complex, October 2012)

Lamar and key players on his “talking book” debut discuss the genesis of each track and interwoven interlude.

How Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is Hip-Hop’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ (Andreas Hale, OkayPlayer, November 2017)

Hale focuses on the cinematic qualities of good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

The Oral History of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ (Andreas Hale, Medium, February 2016)

The melodic influences of To Pimp a Butterfly, including George Clinton and J. Dilla, get teased out in this series of interviews.

Praise & Questions: How Kendrick & Chance Talk to God in Different Ways (Miguelito, DJBooth, April 2017)

An essay on the Christian ethos of DAMN. and how it compares to Chance the Rapper’s optimistic Coloring Book.

Kendrick Lamar’s Genius isn’t Just Verbal, it’s Visual, Too (Jason Parham, Wired, July 2017)

Parham argues that Lamar’s visual content  — his music videos that feel more like short films and live performances — is inseparable from his musical dexterity.

Profiles

Kendrick Lamar: Hip-Hop’s Newest Old School Star (Lizzy Goodman, The New York Times Magazine, June 2014)

Goodman catches Lamar on tour with Kanye West.

The Trials of Kendrick Lamar (Josh Eells, Rolling Stone, June 2015)

Eells’ story touches on Lamar’s parents, who left Chicago to settle in Compton.

Position of Power: Kendrick Lamar’s XXL Cover Story in His Own Words (Kendrick Lamar, XXL, December 2015)

Like in his music, Lamar lays bare his insecurities and grapples with the meaning of his fame and prestige.

In Literature

The Literary Significance of Kendrick Lamar (Mensah Demary, Literary Hub, January 2013)

Demary considers good kid, m.A.A.d. city as a novel and To Pimp a Butterfly as a memoir.

When The Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The Los Angeles Review of Books, January 2013)

Ghansah situates Lamar’s work in the lineage of black memoirists like Richard Wright and Eldridge Cleaver.

“What Do Kendrick and Kanye Owe Women Listeners” (Tomi Obaro, BuzzFeed, April 2016)

A feminist analysis of Lamar’s and West’s lyrics.

The Secret Writing Tips I Learned from Kendrick Lamar (Leila Green, Electric Literature, April 2018)

Green discusses how good kid, m.A.A.d. city helped during the grueling process of editing her short story collection.

On the Pulitzer Prize

How the Pulitzers Chose Kendrick Lamar, According to a Juror (David A. Graham, The Atlantic, April 2018)

An interview with jazz violinist and Pulitzer juror Regina Carter.

Kendrick Lamar Shakes Up the Pulitzer Game: Let’s Discuss (Jon Pareles & Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, April 2018)

The Times‘ chief pop music critic and its classical music editor discuss winners of the Pulitzer throughout the decades and consider what albums may have been overlooked, such as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip Hop (Doreen St. Felix, The New Yorker, April 2018)

The Social and Political Forces Behind Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer (Amanda Petrusich, The New Yorker, April 2018)

The two pieces above, taken together, touch on how Lamar’s selection was a shrewd move for the Pulitzer board’s relevance.